Albuquerque, New Mexico
March 16, 2019
Wagner’s Antisemitism and its Relevance to his Music Dramas 
Full text of remarks by Marc Weiner
Our discussion here today represents something of a change in the public discourse around Wagner, for the subject of the composer’s antisemitism has not always been deemed appropriate, certainly not in the public sphere. Some of the things that come to mind when one thinks of Wagner today have always been associated with the man and his works ever since their first appearance in the 19th century. When thinking about the composer and his music dramas, the themes of romantic love, redemption, and German nationalism have always been there as the focal points of both scholarly and public interest, from the premieres of the early romantic operas – Der fliegende Holländer, Tannhäuser, and Lohengrin— to the extraordinarily popular works of the 1850s and ’60s — Tristan und Isoldeand Die Meistersinger von Nürenberg— to his final music drama, Parsifal— and this has also always been particularly the case with Der Ring des Nibelungen.
Wagner has rightfully been celebrated as one of the most — perhaps themost — talented, imaginative, innovative, and influential artists of the 19th century, not only in music, but in the arts in general, as well as a phenomenon of interest to scholars working in a host of other fields–European intellectual history, political science, psychology, and even the natural sciences (I’m thinking here particularly of the physics of acoustics). It’s not an exaggeration to say that had there been no Wagner, our world today would look, sound, and feel rather different (and, as Adorno said, Wagner basically invented music for the movies, even though he didn’t know it).
But when the discussion turns to Wagner’s hatred of Jews, and especially to its role in the formation of his music dramas, it was not until the 1970s that people started to take the subject seriously. Following the second World War — and the connection in the public mind between Wagner and the Nazis — the subject was taboo, not only in Germany, but just about everywhere else, too. It was well known that, as a man, Wagner was a horrible person — pompous, narcissistic, mean-spirited, selfish, insensitive, arrogant, and vain – but that didn’t seem to bother anyone when it came to his art. In other words, in the writings from the mid-1940s to the late ‘70s we can see the desire among many people to separate the works from the man. Wagner’s failings – and that included his racism — were deemed a “personal, private” matter, or simply symptomatic of his time, and thus were segregated from an appreciation of his music dramas, which made them easier to enjoy. In Germany, it was only when the children of those who had lived during the second World War came of age that a public debate concerning the role of antisemitism in Wagner’s life, worldview, and art began in earnest. It was intense, highly polarized, and it was never very pretty.
And today, as the recent controversy in Israel over a broadcast of the third Act of Gőtterdȁmmerungindicates, the issue appears to have lost none of its urgency. It seems that with each new major presentation of Wagner’s works — and this is especially the case with theRing and Die Meistersinger, undoubtedly the music dramas that bear the strongest traces of the composer’s antisemitism — audiences feel compelled, even sometimes morally obligated, to return to this issue precisely because it’s so disquieting. It’s as though we were making up for the disavowal so characteristic of the period prior to the 1970s. For within our own time we have come to recognize that we can no longer forget about the racism and get away with it, we know that if we did so, we’d appear naïve, or worse yet, as though we were somehow complicit in its denial. There is, there has always been, a temptation to focus on the beauty of Wagner’s works and to leave the antisemitism to others to think about, because these works arebeautiful, ravishingly so, and we can find ourselves so mesmerized and seduced that we overlook the racism that I believe functions right at their core.
On the one hand, I want to insist that, in some of the Wagnerian music dramas, the racism cannot be separated from the works. Indeed, I want to claim that our understanding of Wagner’s hatred of the Jews is sometimes essentialfor our understanding of his music dramas, and this is especially the case primarily with Der Ring des Nibelungenand Die Meistersinger, though to a lesser extent also with Parsifal. But on the other hand, I want to emphasize that antisemitism is not the only thing that matters here, and that over the course of his music dramas it sometimes plays no role whatsoever, and that is the case, I believe, with Lohengrin. Lohengrin, I believe, has nothing to do with Wagner’s antisemitism. In what follows, then, I’d like to provide a few examples of this phenomenon. Obviously, this will have to be a cursory sketch, but I hope that it at least suggests the extent to which antisemitism constitutes a fundamental part of the dramatic project as the composer envisioned it.
Wagner’s racism can only be appreciated if we understand it as one component within a larger concept of the role that art plays for him in the formation of an authentic community. As he stated time and again in his voluminous writings from the 1840s to the end of his life in 1883, art for Wagner was what held a society together, and it did so—as he put it—by “reflecting” back to a society its very essence. Within the Wagnerian imagination, art always has a social function. In a number of essays, especially the ones from the late 1840s and early ‘50s in which he discussed the culture of classical antiquity, he said that no matter how diverse the members of a society might be, when they came together in the theater for a dramatic production, their differences were suspended and they became a homogeneous mass of like-minded members of a community held together by the ties of language and place of origin.
He even went so far as to claim that in ancient Greece, the tragedy was a unified artwork, in which all of the components that would later come to be what we think of as distinct aesthetic genres were actually one, united whole. For him, the Greek tragedy was an artwork in which music, poetry, dance, painting, and architecture all congealed in an indistinguishable aesthetic mass. This is the model of what he would later call the Gesamtkunstwerk—the “total work of art” that would be the hallmark of Wagner’s aesthetic theory. So the unified community was reflected in the unified work of art, and vice versa.
But in his reading of classical antiquity, Wagner claims that once foreigners entered Greece, the homogeneity of Greek society was broken and it disintegrated into heterogeneous parts. As it did so, the communal spirit was replaced with competition, alienation, and greed; the individual became alienated from his fellow man, owing to the “wheeling and dealing merchants” from barbaric lands whose values were foreign to the essence of Greek culture and community, and became so central to the culture of imperial Rome. With the falling asunder of Greek society came the disintegration of the unified artwork, and what had been a mirror of the unified community fell apart into the distinct aesthetic genres we are familiar with today. This is Wagner’s story of the fall of man; the authentic community is defined by the similarity of its members, and this similarity is mirrored in, and reinforced by, the superior, unified work of art, but this lovely, reciprocal reflection is clouded and lost when a foreign difference intrudes into the utopia from non-Greek culture.
Clearly, Wagner’s description of ancient Greece is a model for his analysis of the failings of 19th-century Europe. In the Grand Opera of France he saw the modern manifestation of the disintegrated artwork. In his time, he recognized that virtuosic performers had become more important than the dramas in which they appeared, and he claimed that the dramatic works themselves—the so-called “number operas” comprised of distinct parts, such as arias, duets, trios, chorus, and ballet–were composed more for profit and the enjoyment of the wealthy than in the service of an aesthetic and social ideal.
Wagner viewed his own works—which he labeled “music dramas” in opposition to the operas of France and Italy—as mirrors of an authentic German community that had not yet been formed, since the Germany in which he lived was itself a country, like France, ruled by the forces of industrialization and capital, in which art was little more than a commodity. This is why he thought of his music dramas as “artworks of the future”: they were models for an authentic German community that did not yet exist.
Wagner’s racism fits right into this understanding of the role of art in society. For the Jew in the modern world is the corollary to the “wheeling and dealing” merchants of antiquity, whose loveless and competitive nature was the poison that alienated the Greek community from itself, and in so doing destroyed the superior work of art that had reflected and reinforced it. This is the only component of Wagner’s antisemitism that was his own invention; all of the other aspects of his hatred of Jews were taken from a wide-spread repertoire of antisemitic ideas and images that had existed in Europe at least since the Middle Ages. In these traditions, the Jew was associated with a given set of ideas and traits—he was greedy, competitive, heartless, impious, power-hungry and scheming—and his appearance, whether in the iconography of the Church, or in folklore, literature, or popular culture–was also always similar: The Jews were dark and hairy, their skin was ashen and diseased, they gesticulated and hobbled about excitedly, they had a high and whining voice, were at one and the same time both sexually rapacious and impotent, and they stank. These are also the images that appear whenever Wagner is writing about Jews.
And in his essays, these are explicitlyassociated with Jews, but they also show up in his music dramas, where they may not be explicitly antisemitic, but where they convey ideas Wagner associated with Jews as well. The word Judedoes not appear once in all of Wagner’s works for the stage, but that doesn’t mean that some of his figures have nothing at all to do with the notion of what a Jew was and the way he looked, moved, sounded, and smelled in both Wagner’s imagination and in that of his contemporaries. Alberich, Mime, and Hagen in the Ring, and Beckmesser in Die Meistersinger von Nürnbergall evince the same traits that are deemed Jewish in the composer’s essays, letters, and recorded pronouncements, and they all share the same physical characteristics.
I’d like to present just one example of what I mean by this, which will have to suffice for many others. By the time Wagner wrote his most notoriously antisemitic essay, Das Judenthum in der Musik, or “Judaism in Music” (which can also be translated into English as “Jewry in Music” and/or as “Jewishness in Music,” and Wagner’s original denotes all three meanings) of 1850, the notion had already existed for a long time in European culture that the Jew always spoke the language of his “host country” with a foreign accent. In his essay, Wagner states this explicitly. He writes:
It is of central importance… to consider the impression that the Jew makes on us through his language… an arbitrary distortion of words and phrase constructions give the Jew’s locutions the unmistakable character of an intolerably confused babble of sounds…. To our ear, the hissing, shrill, buzzing, and gurgling sound of the Jewish manner of speech appears quite foreign and unpleasant…. The prickling restlessness [and] nervous energy, [together with] the cold indifference of the idiosyncratic “blabbering” in [Jewish speech] rises for no reason to a stimulation of higher, burning … passion.
Wagner is probably describing either Yiddish or what was called at the time Mauscheln or Jüdeln, which meant speaking German with a Yiddish accent.
The details of this description provide a background to much of the vocal material assigned to the figures in the music dramas who bear the character traits Wagner associated with Jews. These traits don’t constitute a blueprint for composition, but they do inform the musical material. Let’s consider the scene from act II of Siegfriedin which, after the young Volsung has killed the dragon and entered Fafnir’s cave, the Nibelung brothers Alberich and Mime rush into the forest clearing hoping somehow to get the ring. At the beginning, listen to the syncopated rhythm and the rising movement in the woodwinds, which provide mimetic gestures of a hurried, clumsy gait and of a nervous disposition, and then listen for the frenetic figures in the strings and woodwinds that accompany the jarring and elevated vocal lines. (This is from a broadcast from the Metropolitan Opera from 1990 in a production designed by Otto Schenk and conducted by James Levine, starring Ekkehard Wlaschiha as Alberich and Heinz Zednik as Mime.):
Wohin schleich’st du
eilig und schlau,
schlimmer Gesell? … du Rüpel den Herrscherreif!
Selbst nicht tauschen?
Auch nicht theilen?
Leer soll ich geh’n,
ganz ohne Lohn?
Gar nichts willst du mir lassen? … der rasche Held,
der richte, Brüderchen, dich!
Wagner drafted the text of this scene just one year after the Judenthum essay, and only five years before composing its music. Its subject is greed, competition, scheming, and a lack of love, all traits the essay identifies with the Jews. These are caricatures of two stereotypes which Wagner mentions in “Judaism in Music”—one the assimilated, Western Jew, a figure associated with wealth and power, sort of a Nibelung version of the Baron de Rothschild—and the other the Eastern Jew, plaintive and pitiful. The juxtaposition is not unlike that between the two Jews Samuel Goldenberg and Schmuÿl in Mussorgsky’s “Pictures at an Exhibition,” composed less than twenty years later, and based on the same antisemitic stereotypes. The characteristic features are an excited demeanor, angular gait, wild gesticulations, and an abrasive and shrill voice (in the vocal score Wagner indicates that Mime should sing kreischend, or screeching).
In Wagner’s time, these features were widely understood as obvious characteristic traits of the Jew. The representation of purportedly Jewish characteristics in the figure of the Nibelung dwarf Mime, for example, was made note of in the late 19thcentury by the composer Gustav Mahler who, according to his friend Natalie Bauer-Lechner, stated what I suspect was simply obvious to Wagner’s contemporaries: “No doubt with Mime,” Mahler said, “Wagner intended to ridicule the Jews (with all their characteristic traits–petty intelligence and greed–the jargon is textually and musically so cleverly suggested)….” So according to Mahler, there was a direct connection between a prevalent concept of what a Jew was like and Wagner’s text and music. (By the way, Mahler went on to say that he, too, was a Mime!)
This is but one example of the use of 19th-century iconographies of antisemitism within Wagner’s works. The Ringis just full of this kind of thing, as are his essays, nowhere more clearly than in “Judaism in Music” where Wagner writes: “In everyday life the Jew strikes us first of all by his external appearance, which, no matter what European nationality we belong to, has something unpleasantly foreign…: we desire instinctively to have nothing to do with a person who looks like that.”
Now, I want to be clear about something. I am not suggesting in any way, shape, or form that these figures are Jews. Obviously, the Scandinavian literary-mythic models on which they are based—such as Andvari and Regin in “The Saga of the Volsungs,” and Wieland the smith in “The Poetic Edda”—could never be thought of as Jews (nor, for that matter, would this be the case with a town notary in 16th-century Nuremberg, upon whom the figure of Beckmesser was based). The point is rather that, against the backdrop of Wagner’s culture, these figures bear the traces of prejudice in the 19th-century European imagination; they are made up of stereotypical physical features and characteristics that are associated in the cultural consciousness of Wagner’s time with notions linked to Jews. These figures are by no means literally to be understood as Jews, nor are they onlyand nothing butvessels of antisemitism.
They are many other things as well, functioning as part of a cycle of fairytales filled with wonder and magic, a sleeping beauty, a fire-breathing dragon, giants, monsters, amazons, a magic ring of power, and a magic helmet that makes its bearer invisible, and as dwarves they share much with a host of stories in which the appearance of similar figures has much less to do with the ideas that Wagner associates with Jews. But the Ringis a fairytale told against the backdrop of 19th-century conceptualizations of race, and if we fail to recognize this fact, we will have misunderstood the complexity, subtlety, and ambiguity of its makeup.
I’d like to turn now to another scene, also in Siegfried, in order to discuss another aspect of the relevance of Wagner’s antisemitism for an understanding of Wagner’s works for the stage. The traces of the composer’s prejudice are not only found in the overt, obvious physical features I’ve just described. They are also part of his aesthetic program, they form part of his artistic theory. In other words, Wagner’s antisemitism even illuminates how he believed superior art is created and how the superior community receives it. I’d like to preface my discussion of the next musical example with another quote from “Judaism in Music.” Wagner writes:
[The Jew’s] entire position among us does not allow [him] … to penetrate our being completely: either intentionally … or instinctively …. He therefore only listens to our artistry and its life-giving inner organism in a very superficial manner…. This explains [why] the coincidental exterior form of appearances in the area of our musical life and art must necessarily appear to him as its very being; therefore his reception of it, when he reflects it back to us as an artist, must appear to us foreign, cold, strange, indifferent, unnatural, and distorted…. [what the Jewish artist] creates is like the Jew’s attempt to speak German, it is simply a repetition, … painfully accurate and deceptively similar …; he speaks German just as parrots imitate human words and phrases, but without any expression or real emotion as these stupid birds are wont to do.
The Jew is a copycat. Lacking the folkish roots of the German community, he longs to gain entrance into that community by pretending to be a German, which means that as an artist, he attempts to write authentic German music. But as an outsider, the most he can achieve is a poor replication. This is precisely how Wagner described the music of Felix Mendelssohn, who had been inspired by the works of Bach. To the end of his life Wagner never tired of trying to get his fellow Germans to see what he thought of as the difference between German and Jewish art, because he was afraid that if his fellow countrymen failed, as he put it, to recognize the distinction between the non-German copies of a Mendelssohn or a Meyerbeer and his own superior works, they would take the Jew’s distorted image of things German to be their own legitimate reflection. In a later essay entitled “What is German?” Wagner writes specifically of the threat posed by the Jewish artwork’s “reflection” of the German people, an art work that “apes” the aesthetic heritage of the Germans, and he says:
… thus we see an odious travesty of the German spirit upheld today before the German Volkas its imputed likeness. It is to be feared that before long the nation may truly believe that it recognizes itself in this mirror image; then one of the finest natural dispositions in all the human race [i.e., the German disposition] would be done to death, perchance forever.
Wagner fears that by mis-recognizing themselves in the Jewish artwork, the community of authentic Germans would be doomed. To us today this, of course, sounds preposterous and weird, but Wagner was quite serious about the metaphysical implications of art, which were grounded for him in 19th-century notions of the reality of racial difference.
Thus the Jewish artist is dangerous precisely because he is a virtuoso of mimicry; he is a mime, which is pronounced “Meema” in German, the very name Wagner gave to Alberich’s brother, the master smith and foster father of Siegfried. Mime is an artist who copies—No wonder his most accomplished work is the Tarnhelm, a magic helmet that allows its bearer to take on the appearance of something that he is not. The third drama of the Ringconcerns, among other things, the incompatibilities between two artistic paradigms. We don’t usually think of Siegfriedthis way, but it has much in common with Die Meistersinger von Nürnbergin this way, which of course portrays the competition between two philosophies of artistic creation. The word “Kunst,” or “art” shows up repeatedly in the first act of Siegfried, which opens with Mime, the master smith, failing to re-fashion the broken sword, Nothung, and it ends with the young hero accomplishing that very task.
Like Beckmesser, Mime creates according to rules—he’s the paint-by-numbers kind of artist, while Siegfried is like Walther von Stolzing: his artistry is spontaneous, natural, and unfettered by rules that have been taught and by conventions that have been followed. As he forges the sword Nothung, the hero derides Mime by saying: “Mime der Künstler lernt jetzt Kochen”—“Mime the artist is learning to cook,” and as he does so, the dwarf derides the boy for not having bothered to learn from him the rules of art. So in the juxtaposition of the two things they make at the end of act I—the sword and the poison—we have an allegory of superior German art and the dangerous and inferior art of the Jews.
After all, what is the sword? It once was whole, but owing to the forces of power and greed, it was torn asunder, and while the inferior craftsman Mime can try to put it back together, it’s only the super-Teutonic superhero who can reunite a work that will serve to rid the world of the scheming and loveless foreigner, an artist who can only mimic, but never truly create. The sword is thus an allegory of the Artwork of the Future, and it’s no coincidence that at the end of the Ringcycle, it remains behind, unbroken and whole, awaiting an indefinite, and yet hopeful future.
When Mime confronts Siegfried in front of the dragon’s cave after the hero has killed the monster and attained the ring, Wagner puts on stage the very aesthetic ideas upon which his music dramas are based. This is not obvious, certainly not as obvious as his use of Jewish stereotypes, but it helps us to appreciate just how deeply the composer’s racism was imbedded in the very material of his artistic works. Wagner stages the threat that the inferior artist poses to the superior German as literallya danger to the life of the young hero. Mime intends to poison the boy after Siegfried has killed the dragon, in order to win the magic ring and the golden treasure the dragon had been guarding. But of course he doesn’t succeed, and not only because the Volsung is stronger and fearless, but because he is an allegory of the superior German artist. Siegfried can see beyond superficial appearances, and thus he can perceive hidden meaning. Mime, on the other hand, relies on the credibility of appearances; he sees only the surface and assumes that Siegfried will do so as well. And that will be his undoing.
Mime approaches Siegfried with murder in mind, but he attempts to conceal his intentions behind a friendly demeanor. Before addressing the hero, he says to himself: “Doubly clever / may the dwarf now be: / the craftiest traps / I will lay for him, / so that with / deceptively familiar speech / I will confuse the defiant child.” And we all know the fairy-tale story: Because Siegfried has imbibed the magical blood of the dragon, he is able to understand the warblings of the Forest Bird, who warns him of Mime’s intentions. In other words, even Nature is on the hero’s side.
Act II, sc. 3 of Siegfriedmust constitute one of Wagner’s most remarkable musical-dramatic creations, because it is based on a daring dramaturgical device. The audience never hears the text of Mime’s address to Siegfried; instead, like the hero, it hears Mime’s innermost thoughts. We don’t hear the words Mime formulates when he lies to Siegfried, but we hear the music he sings, which is an approximation, or a replacement, a representation of that missing text.
Wagner’s music for Mime sounds sweetly sycophantic, lilting, and unctuous to a Western audience familiar with the musical codes of lullabies and familial love. In creating a musical idiom for the dwarf’s duplicitous exchange with the German boy, Wagner goes to great lengths to establish a musical vocabulary that sounds exaggerated to the point of lacking authenticity–the sounds are so overly sweet, so exaggeratedly light-hearted, that they emerge as signs of a disingenuous performance. The stage directions underscore these implications: Wagner describes Mime’s diction and demeanor as “sweet,” “gentle,” “with a friendly joking manner,” “chuckling,” “humorously joking,” and “as if he were promising him pretty things,” “as if he were willing to give up his life for him,” and “with the expression of heartfelt concern for Siegfried’s health,”—all of this while Mime is planning to murder the boy. Let’s listen to a section near the beginning of this scene (and here, Siegfried Jerusalem sings the Volsung hero):
So sinnst Du auf meinen Schaden? So you’re thinking about hurting me?
Wie, sagt ich denn das? What, did I say that?
Siegfried! Hör doch, mein Söhnchen! Siegfried! Just listen, my son!
Dich und deine Art You and your kind
haßt’ ich immer von Herzen; I’ve always hated from the bottom of my heart;
aus Liebe erzog ich for love I raised
dich Lästigen nicht: you not, you nuisance;
dem Horte in Fafners Hut, the hoard watched over by Fafner,
dem Golde galt meine Müh’. the gold was the target of my toil.
Gibst du mir das If you don’t give it to me
gutwillig nun nicht– willingly–
Siegfried, mein Sohn, Siegfried, my son,
das siehst du wohl selbst: you surely see for yourself:
dein Leben mußt du mir lassen! You’ll have to give me your life!
The music to this passage is a caricature. Mime merely mimics and mimes the lilting sweetness of the sounds of love, sounds with which he himself obviously has no affinity, but which he feels will convince and fool the young Germanic hero. Through the ironic tension between the codes of the music in the orchestra and vocal line and the violence of Mime’s verbal statements, Siegfried is revealed to be the target of an unnatural, racially, and aesthetically foreign deception.
All of this is an allegory of the differences between two kinds of art. This becomes clear if we compare what’s going on here to an essay Wagner wrote while completing Die Meistersinger, which as I’ve suggested bears some similarities to Siegfried(and he interrupted the composition of Siegfriedto compose Die Meistersinger). In the essay “Deutsche Kunst und deutsche Politik”—or “German Art and German Politics,” Wagner juxtaposes two aesthetic theories, which he calls, rather misleadingly, “Realism” and “Idealism.” “Realism” simply replicates what we see before us. Its limits are the material that artworks are made of, and thus it’s hardly surprising that Wagner associates this kind of art with foreigners, especially with the Jews and the French. “Idealism,” on the other hand, is the theory on which the superior, German, Wagnerian art is based.
Wagner has in mind here the Platonic notion that reality is not limited to, or contained or even adequately represented by, the material objects in the world around us. Instead, for both Plato and Wagner, art is greater than any specific, artistic form. Wagner says that the Germans—whether as artists or as audience—can see through surface appearance into the “depths” of an artwork and perceive there its core, its essence. The idealist would never confuse the material of an artwork with what that work signifies. Let’s remember that, for Wagner, all art had come to be viewed as a commodity in the culture of modern Europe, a culture that he said was in the hands of the Jews, with whom he associated all non-German, and especially French art. In “German Art and German Politics,” he says:
No matter how high the French spirit attempted to raise itself above the commonality of life, the most sublime spheres of its imagination were always limited by the palpable and visible formulas of life which could be mimicked, but not imaginatively reproduced: for only nature can be the object of aesthetic reproduction, while culture can only be the object of mechanical mimicry.
Culture and nature occupy positions on the same polar extremes that separate Realism from Idealism and the French and the Jews from the Germans. Culture here is the modern manifestation of a foreign social system devoid of “depth,” and hence most appropriately represented by an aesthetics of virtuosity, surface appearance, and inauthenticity; culture, like civilization and the State, is the unnatural manifestation of an inferior, foreign, Judaized modernity, of what Wagner elsewhere in this same text calls the “cosmopolitan synagogue of the present age.”
This is the basis of the tension between Siegfried and Mime. The hero, and his audience, know that what they are listening to represents something else. We don’t hear the deceptive text of Mime’s speech, but we do hear something that Wagner provides as its representation, namely, the sweet and lilting music. Obviously we know that what we’re hearing refers to something else that lies outside of the artistic material. We know that we’re not listening to a text that conveys what Mime is saying to Siegfried; we’re listening to music that represents that text. So although the Volsung hero and we listen to different things—he to the text Mime says, and we to the music that represents it–we both perceive behind the material with which we are confronted a superior, hidden meaning.
It’s simply part of the consistent message that the German superhero’s life is saved when he recognizes Mime’s mimicry as a danger. This justifies the dwarf’s murder in the eyes of the audience. With the antisemitic essays in mind, we can see that this is an allegory of Wagner’s message to Germany: “Know yourself” by recognizing what you are not. Recognize the Jew’s reflection of you to be a false image. Save yourself from a deceitful foreigner within your midst.
Let’s listen to the rest of the scene, just up to Mime’s murder, in order to see how this unfolds:
So willst du mein Schwert So you want to rob me of my sword
und was ich erschwungen, and what I conquered,
Ring und Beute, mir rauben? ring and booty?
Was du doch falsch mich verstehst! How you misunderstand me!
Stamml’ ich, fasl’ ich wohl gar? Am I stammering, am I even babbling?
Die größte Mühe The greatest effort
geb ich mir doch, I make
mein heimliches Sinnen my secret intent
heuchelnd zu bergen, to deceptivey hide
und du dummer Bube and you, stupid boy
deutest alles doch falsch! interpret everything wrong!
Öffne die Ohren Open your ears
und vernimm genau: and listen closely:
höre, was Mime meint! hear, what Mime means!
Hier nimm und trinke dir Labung! Here, take and drink the refreshment!
Mein Trank labte dich oft: My drink often refreshed you:
tatst du auch unwirsch, though you acted ill-tempered,
stelltest dich arg: acted defiant:
was ich dir bot, whatever I offered you
erbost auch, nahmst du’s doch immer. even when angry, you still always took it. […]
Im Schlafe willst du mich morden? In my sleep you want to murder me?
Was möcht ich? Sagt’ ich denn das? What do I want? Did I say that?
Ich will dem Kind I only want
nur den Kopf abhaun! to chop the child’s head off!
I’ve dealt with this passage at some length to suggest how important Wagner’s antisemitism is to an appreciation of his artworks. It even informs Wagner’s theories about the makeup of inferior and superior works of art. At certain points in his dramatic works, Wagner made specific decisions as a composer—he decided to write certain kinds of music—because of his understanding of the role art plays in society, and that understanding included his antisemitism. If we refuse to recognize this fact, we fail to fully appreciate the artworks.
I’d like to close my talk with a couple of observations:
The connection between Wagner and the Holocaust still confronts us today when we try to decide what to do with the works as they have come down to us in the present moment, and this makes the way we view this issue a decidedly moral one. Do we face it head-on, or do we not? If we do, what are the implications of our decision? I still often get the impression that people either want Wagner’s critics to just shut up whenever they start to talk about antisemitism, or they feel guilty whenever they find themselves enjoying his music dramas. They want the critics to shut up so they don’t have to feel guilty. For me, both reactions are misplaced. Obviously I’ve been arguing that it would be irresponsible to deny the important role that antisemitism played in Wagner’s art and thought. But I’ve also said that it would be equally delimiting to focus our attention solely on this one issue. Just because we acknowledge the role that racism played in the creation of the artworks doesn’t mean we’re racist for liking them. Our redemption from Wagner’s hatred does not lie in our pretending that it has nothing whatsoever to do with his works of art. On the contrary, once we’ve recognized the fact that, for the composer, it did, we can then be free to look at things he never saw.
 Marc Weiner, Richard Wagner and the Anti-Semitic Imagination(Lincoln: U of Nebraska P, 1995; 1997); —–, Antisemitische Fantasien: Die Musikdramen Richard Wagners, trans. Henning Thies (Berlin: Henschel, 2000).